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Book Chat » Excerpts from Ivan Vladislavic's Kentridge Essay

Excerpts from Ivan Vladislavic's Kentridge Essay

  1. Ben - Editor Ben - Editor

    TapestriesIvan Vladislavic & Minky Schlesinger Alert! You asked for it - the collective you, the huge, teeming, roaring, rise-up-as-one mass that is BOOK SA's readership, that you - and you've got it.

    Sort of.

    To the person who really did ask for it (representative of the huge, teeming, etc.) , we've brought you parts of it. Parts of Ivan Vladislavic's essay in William Kentridge's new book, William Kentridge: Tapestries, that is.

    The excerpts were chosen by Vladislavic himself, who said, "it was difficult finding sections that work on their own and also give a broad sense of what the piece is about, but these might do the trick". They certainly do, and we're pleased and proud to bring them to you:

    * * * * * * * *

    From “A Farm in Eloff Street” by Ivan Vladislavic, first published in William Kentridge: Tapestries, edited by Carlos Basualdo, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008

    In times of social transformation, the revision of history and the reshaping of the physical world go together. Territory is reclaimed through being renamed. The remapping of a future South Africa was agreed to in 1993 during the multiparty negotiations toward a democracy. One of the first major planning initiatives of the post-apartheid state was to remodel the provincial system, replacing the four provinces of the colonial era with nine new ones, and erasing apartheid entities such as the “homelands.” The renaming of towns and streets still continues.

    The civic virtue of long-established place-names, as Michel de Certeau argues, is that custom has severed their link with actual persons or events and rendered them comfortably neutral. The names of streets, squares and suburbs “slowly lose, like worn coins, the value engraved on them” (i) and become open to a multiplicity of subjective meanings. It is a mark of how contested South African spaces are that the “rich indetermination” (ii) De Certeau mentions has scarcely had time to develop. The values engraved on place-names are still felt, and plans to rename colonial cities like Pretoria have proved controversial. While most black South Africans regard renaming as the justifiable restoration of a suppressed indigenous history, many whites see it as a negation of their place in the contemporary society. People may feel the loss of symbols more acutely than the loss of direct political power or economic status. (iii)

    The renaming of places transmutes associations in complicated ways. Goch Street in Newtown, to take one example, was named after a speculator who founded a mining empire on the Rand. By 2004, when the street was renamed for the great investigative journalist Henry Nxumalo, few Johannesburgers would have been able to identify George Goch. But for some, the mention of Goch Street would have summoned another name: Solomon Mahlangu. It was here, in June 1977, that the ANC guerrilla was captured in a shoot-out with police. Two years later, he was hanged by the apartheid government. When “Goch Street” was painted out on the curbstones in Newtown, these echoes of Mahlangu’s story faded away too.

    We take the residues of places with us, even as we leave them behind in the concrete streets. William Kentridge expresses this double bind in his work. His porters and refugees, silhouetted against maps like actors against backdrops, carry the precariously balanced necessities of an accommodated life – a bed, some chairs. Yet they seem burdened less by this baggage than by the maps of old cities and vanished countries before which they pass. The weight of this history is in their bodies and they cannot put it down.


    A small graveyard on a family farm is supposed to be a place of belonging. The body is still at home here, mingled with the soil that once sustained it and drawn into a cycle of regeneration. A farm burial anchors a lineage stretching back in time, measured in sweat and blood, and expresses a claim on the future. To be buried somewhere is to remain there, inalienably part of the scene.

    However, some recent South African writing expresses a break in this comforting continuity with the soil. At the end of Antjie Krog’s A Change of Tongue, the narrator buries her father. By the time of his death, circumstances have made it impossible for him to live on the land and his farm has been leased to someone else. Permission must be sought from the new tenant to use the farm graveyard, and the mourners arrive like thieves through a cut fence.

    What is the symbolic freight of such a burial? The narrator asks her brother, “Do we really want to bury Pa in land that none of us farm any more? That we might sell soon? Would you like to be buried in somebody else’s land?” His answer splits the metaphoric bond between farm and country by treating belonging as more important than owning: “If you want to look at it that way, you can just as well say that the whole country is somebody else’s land … We all want to be buried on the farm, even if it is no longer ours. We are of it.” (iv)

    The earth itself seems to dispute this notion. When the father’s grave is being readied, the gravediggers strike ironstone. It’s as if the abandoned farm is reluctant to accept the body. A crypt must be hacked from the stone with hammers and chisels.
    In Agaat, the passage from dust to dust is also disrupted, in this case by a manmade barrier: Milla’s grave is lined with concrete. But her possession of the grave is challenged more strongly by a gesture of Agaat’s. Before Milla dies, Agaat tries out the grave for size, laying claim even to that space before Milla occupies it.

    What is being buried in these books is less a human being than a historical presumption. The mortal remains of an easy, inalienable right to the land are laid to rest.

    City people accept that to die is to lose your place in the world. It is not usual for a city person to be buried at the bottom of the garden, between the pool filter and the tool shed. Rather, the city’s dead are removed to their own suburbs, zoned by religious affiliation, it’s true, but fairly democratic places nonetheless, tucked away on the edge of town where the living do not have to keep tripping over them. A city cemetery is low-cost housing for the dead.


    (i) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 104.

    (ii) De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 105.

    (iii) This is argued by Johann Rossouw, “Alienation much more symbolic than material,” Sunday Times, March 4, 2007, p. 21.

    (iv) Antjie Krog, A Change of Tongue (Johannesburg: Random House, 2003), p. 360

    * * * * * * * *

    Book Details

    Thanks to Ivan Vladislavic and all others who facilitated the publication of this excerpt.

    Posted: 7 years #
  2. Rustum Kozain Rustum Kozain


    Posted: 7 years #
  3. Colleen Colleen

    "A city cemetery is low-cost housing for the dead." What a line!
    Except it got me to thinking about cremating the dead, what is that? What can we compare it to? Maybe not such a promising area to explore...

    Posted: 7 years #
  4. Richard de Nooy Richard de Nooy

    Cremation is the ultimate space-saving device.

    Posted: 7 years #
  5. Rustum Kozain Rustum Kozain

    Cremation is high-density no-cost disembarkation?

    Posted: 7 years #
  6. Colleen Colleen

    Has anyone been to the Maitland crematorium? It's got to be one of the most depressing disembarkation points. I am almost tempted to put in my last will and testament, please anywhere but there.

    Posted: 7 years #
  7. Richard de Nooy Richard de Nooy

    "Crematoria are vast underground engines, with the smoke stack protruding, where bodies are burnt to keep the world turning."

    Posted: 7 years #
  8. Ben - Editor Ben - Editor

    I've been to the crematorium in Maitland - and found it rather appropriate for death. Guess I wouldn't mind going up in smoke there.

    Posted: 7 years #
  9. Richard de Nooy Richard de Nooy

    Whenever anyone (usually my mother-in-law) tells us that they have been to a funeral, my nine-year-old son knits his brow and asks: "Buried or burnt?" But the answer never seems to be satisfactory.

    Posted: 7 years #

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